By Paula Holmes-Greeley, Muskegon Chronicle

Published Friday, July 8, 2011

New jury rules recently approved by the Michigan Supreme Court have the potential to help those serving on juries become better informed about the cases they are hearing and more active participants in the trial — and that should lead to better informed jury decisions.

Court officials say the changes should be especially helpful during lengthy trials, when jurors may find it hard to keep track of evidence and their attention may begin to wander.

The new rules could even improve citizen response to what often is a dreaded jury duty notice.

Frustration with the jury system is long-standing. Everyone wants their day in court, but very few are happy about having to help someone else get his or hers. When people feel like they are an important part of the process, they’re more likely to want to participate. Michigan jury reforms have the potential to create that kind of courtroom atmosphere.

And that’s all good. With the current debate over the decision in the Florida murder trial of Casey Anthony, it’s important that courts work to create confidence in our jury system by giving jurors the tools to make sound decisions and not handcuffing them with archaic procedures.

Michigan is a late arrival to the jury reform process. More than 30 states were discussing changes before Michigan began looking at proposals.

When announcing the reforms June 29, Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Young Jr. described the changes as “designed to reflect how adults learn and make decisions.”

Jurors will now be encouraged to take notes and to ask questions of the witnesses through written requests reviewed by the judge and attorneys. Jurors also will be given reference books containing witness lists, key exhibits, explanations of the law and preliminary jury instructions.

In civil trials only, jurors will be allowed to discuss evidence and testimony during breaks while the information is fresh in their minds, something that is still forbidden in criminal trials. In those trials, jurors will not be able begin deliberations until the traditional time — at the end of the trial.

It’s important to note the jury reforms were tested in Muskegon County and 11 other counties during a two-year pilot project beginning in 2008. Many area citizens participated in trials using the reforms and found them to be effective, according to Muskegon County Circuit Judge Timothy Hicks. Hicks told The Chronicle that he’s pleased that some of the new procedures he tested are being adopted.

Hicks also wrote an article, “The Jury Reform Pilot Project — The Envelope, Please,” for the June issue of the Michigan Bar Journal. The report is based on written surveys that jurors and attorneys filled out after each trial in each of the 12 courts during the two-year trial period and on Hicks’ own courtroom experience.

His verdict: Jurors liked the reforms; trial lawyers didn’t. Hicks urged support for the changes, which will take effect in September, and The Chronicle Editorial Board joins him.

The court system and the opportunity to have your case decided by a jury of your peers is one of the most revered rights of this nation. Based on the number and popularity of court related TV shows — both fictional and reality — it’s clear there’s plenty of interest in the judicial system. The problem with TV is it’s all over in 30 minutes and viewers receive plenty of background that jurors aren’t getting.

Being a juror is a very demanding job. Making it easier for jurors to understand procedure and to participate in the process can only improve the system. Allowing jurors to use the tools and approach they would employ in a normal decision-making process can only improve the outcome.